Twenty months have elapsed since one of the Phillies’ minor-league affiliates last played a baseball game that counted in the standings.
That finally changes Tuesday when all four of the Phillies’ minor-league teams – Lehigh Valley, Reading, Jersey Shore, and Clearwater – open their seasons at home.
The last time the BlueClaws played a game on Labor Day 2019, they went by the name of Lakewood and were a low-A affiliate. Now, they are the high-A Jersey Shore BlueClaws even though they are still playing in Lakewood. The last time Reading played a game, Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm had a couple of hits, including a home run, against a New York Yankees’ affiliate – the Trenton Thunder – that doesn’t exist anymore.
Not to confuse you, but if you’d still like to see a minor-league game at Arm & Hammer Park in Trenton you can do so this season because Toronto’s triple-A Buffalo team will be playing there to start the season while the major-league Blue Jays move from their spring-training home in Dunedin, Fla. to Buffalo’s Sahlen Field for a second straight year. Lehigh Valley could be at Trenton from June 29 through July 4.
So much is different about the minor leagues now and the players will also be dealing with rules changes, too, as the major leagues use them as guinea pigs for potential future alterations at the highest level.
At triple A, the bases will be slightly bigger and less slippery. At double A, all four infielders will have to have their cleats on the infield dirt when a pitch is delivered. At high A, pitchers must step off the rubber to attempt a pickoff throw. The low-A league the Phillies’ Clearwater team plays in will use an automated system to call balls and strikes.
Enough about the rules, let’s talk about the players. The Phillies’ farm system is considered among the weakest in the game heading into the season. It was ranked No. 27 out of 30 by Baseball America and 23rd by MLB.com.
This is finally a chance to change some of the opinions and here’s a list of some of the players that could do it. With the exception of catcher Rafael Marchan, who was called back to the majors Friday after Didi Gregorius was placed on the injured list, we are not including guys who have already played in the big leagues because you know all about them.
It will be interesting to see where the Phillies start their 2020 first-round pick. The guess here is that the 15th overall pick from Jesuit High School in Oregon will throw his first professional pitch at low-A Clearwater. Abel, a hard-throwing 19-year-old right-hander, could, however, be part of the Jersey Shore show at some point this season.
The Phillies gave the 19-year-old outfielder from Venezuela a $2.5-million signing bonus last March and he arrived with a tremendous nickname – The Drone. He, too, likely will get his professional start at Clearwater with a chance to advance to the Jersey Shore squad before the summer is over.
If, like most Phillies fans, you are of the belief that none of the five outfielders who competed for the center-field job in spring training are the long-term solution at the position, then this could be a really important season for Rojas. He got into 23 games with the Phillies during spring training and hit .238 with a home run and five stolen bases in as many attempts. Most important, he caught the eye of manager Joe Girardi with the way he played center field and handled himself at the plate.
“He’s a plus-plus defender,” Girardi said. “He’s a plus runner. He has the chance to be a special player. I believe so. I believe there’s Gold Glove potential there. Offense becomes really important. Maturing as an offensive player. He has bat speed. He has a ton of tools. He’s very coachable, and he picks up on things quickly.”
The guess here is that he’ll start the season at Jersey Shore.
Like Rojas, Muzziotti is a center fielder and that’s the land of opportunity with the Phillies right now. He had an impressive season with Clearwater in 2019, finishing fifth in the Florida State League with a .287 average while also stealing 21 bases. Look for the 22-year-old Venezuelan native to open the season at either Reading or Lehigh Valley.
It’s too bad that Stott, the Phillies’ first-round pick in 2019, was deprived of his first full minor-league season by the pandemic, but at least he spent time at the alternate training site in Allentown, Pa., with a crop of advanced minor-league players, many of whom had major-league experience. Stott, a shortstop at UNLV, also played some second base and third base in his first professional season in 2019 while hitting .295 with six homers and 27 RBIs in 48 games. Stott, 23, will likely open the season at Lehigh Valley.
When we last saw the 21-year-old right-hander from Venezuela, he was in the midst of finishing strong at Lakewood in 2019. In his final 16 outings, he had a 2.98 ERA and struck out 74 batters in 63 1/3 innings while holding opponents to a .202 average. The guess here is that the 6-foot-5, 260-pound right-hander will start at Reading with a chance to move fast if he pitches well.
The switch-hitting shortstop was paid $2.5 million to sign out of the Dominican Republic in 2017 and was sensational in 43 Gulf Coast League games in 2018. But the following year he struggled at the plate and in the field with Lakewood, so the Phillies are eager to see how he performs upon his return. He will likely open the season with the Jersey Shore team.
We did get a brief look at Marchan last season and the Phillies loved his work behind the plate, which is why they called him back to the big leagues Friday. But, given that J.T. Realmuto is signed through 2025, being a young catcher in this organization right now probably makes you trade bait. And wouldn’t you know it, five of the Phillies’ top 30 prospects, according to Baseball America, are catchers. The list also includes Logan O’Hoppe, Andrick Nava, Rickardo Perez, and Abrahan Gutierrez. The Phillies also like the power of Rodolfo Duran.